Alexander Skarsgård cuts a swath of bloody vengeance in a ferocious Viking epic. The Northman vividly combines a Hamlet-esque narrative with Scandinavian history and mythology. The film inserts fantasy elements into its brutal depiction of murder, looting, and pillaging. The Norse gods are invoked and bestow favor on a mighty protagonist. His savage odyssey is an action juggernaut of hacked limbs and torn entrails. The Northman is well-acted, directed, and undeniably thrilling; but suffers from rote predictability through a long runtime.
In the late 9th century, young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) eagerly awaits his father’s return from battle. King Aurvandill War-Raven’s (Ethan Hawke) ships arrive with chests of looted treasure and chained slaves. Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) warmly greets her conquering husband. His bastard brother, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang), curses the Fool (Willem Dafoe) who mocks their triumph. But the King is in good humor with a sacred duty.
Aurvandill decides it’s time for his beloved son’s rite of passage as a man. The ceremony is cut short by treachery. Fjölnir uses the distraction to attack his brother, usurp the throne, and steal his beautiful wife. Fjölnir’s deceitful lackey lies about killing Amleth. Years later, a grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) attacks a Slavic village with a gang of raiders. He overhears that Fjölnir has fled to Iceland. Amleth disguises himself with the slaves being sold to Fjölnir. A captured witch, the blonde Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), recognizes Amleth as an interloper.
Alexander Skarsgård is a beast and a half here. His ultra-chiseled physique mercilessly decimates enemies by any means. Amleth even bites like an animal. He is bitterly consumed by hatred for his uncle. Biding his time for the right opportunity to strike. Amleth’s duplicitous turn as a slave offers a stark contrast to the feral warrior. He’s beaten, mocked, and goaded by Fjölnir’s foolish men. Arrogance blinds them to the dangerous threat in their midst. These scenes further stoke Amleth’s rage for the reckoning to come.
Supporting Cast in The Northman
The female supporting cast offers needed character complexity and a welcome diversion from the raging machismo. Women exist to serve the whims of men. Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrún is more than a concubine passed between brothers. She has the most interesting perspective. Slave women are worked like horses and could be violated at any time. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga knows she is the most physically attractive slave. She uses her wits to keep defilers at bay. Her cunning becomes a valuable weapon alongside Amleth’s brute strength.
Director / co-writer Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) continues to excel in creating engrossing environments. You can almost smell the dirt, blood, and brisk sea air. Eggers’ experience as a production designer allows him to be truly immersive. He creates authentic settings that show the primal nature of the characters. Scenes of the Vikings covered in hides and channeling their bear spirits are magnificent. There is no humanity in their lust for violence and carnal pleasures.
The Northman is told in sections of Norse folklore. Amleth’s quest is fated by the gods. The film incorporates his visions as cut-scenes from the primary narrative. Amleth sees his family lineage as a luminous tree ascending to the heavens. He also prays to Odin for the will to overcome his suffering. Robert Eggers juxtaposes the grit of battle and servitude with religious imagery. The changes in lighting, surface texture, and depth are superbly done.
The Northman is a spectacularly graphic film. Robert Eggers revels in butchery. The realistic swordplay leaves little to the imagination. Open wounds spurt blood. Skulls are smashed to brain pulp. Heads literally roll. This is not an endeavor for children or anyone remotely squeamish.
Audiences will certainly get their action fix. The Northman gets high marks for looks. I just wish the screenplay was more sophisticated. We’ve seen the unstoppable killing spree countless times. There’s no deviation from the expected.
The Northman is a production of Regency Enterprises and Perfect World Pictures. It will have an April 22nd theatrical release from Focus Features.
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